There's something hugely appealing about the unexpectedly fast, small car. It's the combination of cute looks and the promise of major amusement from cheeky, giant-killing performance. So, a Fiat 500 wearing big wheels, a roof-mounted wing and enough stripes to decorate a general is a pleasing eyeful. This, and the fact that the 500 is impossibly stylish to start with. You might be surprised not to find a single Fiat badge, unless you go burrowing deep in the engine bay, but it is liberally sprinkled with enamelled scorpions, some of which crop up in unexpected places – like the real thing – such as high on the rear wings.
Model: Fiat Abarth 500
Price: estimated at £13,500, on sale in January 2009
Engine: 1368cc 4 cylinder petrol, 16 valves, 135bhp at 5500rpm, 152lb ft at 3000rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual, front engine, front-wheel drive
Performance: 127mph, 0-62mph in 7.9sec, 43.4mpg official average
The scorpion is the symbol of Abarth, a tuning company founded in 1949 by a Carlo of the same name, who adopted his scorpion birth sign as a logo. Abarth became famous in the 1950s for tuning baby Fiats – mostly 500s and 600s – to go impossibly fast, just as race-car maker John Cooper persuaded BMC to make quick Minis a decade later. Abarth's cars picked up many victories – he was paid per win – so Fiat bought Abarth in 1971 then, as often happens when a corporate whale swallows a minnow, it lost interest, often sticking the scorpion on cars undeserving of lethal insect embellishment such as the Stilo Abarth hot hatch – about as hot as Gordon Brown's re-election prospects.
All that has changed with the re-invigorated Fiat Auto, which decided to rejuvenate Abarth not just as a brand but as a whole new company complete with race division, engineering department, a CEO and a marketing operation that will sell you everything from crate-packed tuning kits to clothing. But its main mission is to produce small, sporting, rebranded Fiats. The 500 is the born-again Abarth's second car – the first is a hot Punto – and the company has done more than run wild with badging: it sits on stylish 16in alloy wheels; wears sill extensions that suck it closer to the road; has deep bumpers with extra air intakes and extractors; fashionable red brake callipers; and, if you order a white one, there's red stripes and red door mirror housings.
What really makes it special is a 135bhp, turbocharged engine that's powerful enough to whiz the Abarth to 62mph in 7.9 seconds. To get this kind of performance you need to press an elegant button marked "sport" on the painted dashboard, the stabbing of which does much to change the character of the car. More pulling power is unleashed and the engine's mood alters, its response to the accelerator flips from the brisk-but-measured to the sharply enthusiastic and the power steering weights up to feel meatier. It does feel artificially springy as it's initially turned, but the extra resistance mid-turn is confidence building.
Bar the occasionally weird steering feel this is an excellent feature, making the Abarth easier to drive and more economical in urban landscapes, though a little more manic for those twisting road moments. The bumpily twisting roads typical of Britain are not surfaces that Fiats, sporting or otherwise, have handled well over the years. Suspension that crashes noisily over potholes, less than incisive cornering and spongy brakes have too often relegated fast Fiats to the netherworld. The Abarth certainly has the look, but now it appears to have the handling too. Roadholding is excellent, the 500 is pretty willing to follow your chosen trajectory without running wide, and when it does, a clever traction control system brakes individual wheels to keep it on line. Staunching the engine's output is what these systems usually do and the effect, in terms of fluency of progress, is much the same as driving into a pool of molasses. With this system it's possible to proceed briskly and safely without having your rhythm wrecked.
What we don't know yet, because our test took place on an alabaster-smooth track, is whether this baby Fiat rides comfortably. It will certainly be firm, but – if a recent UK roads experience in its big brother, the Abarth Punto, is a guide – rarely uncomfortable. Which is a good sign for keen drivers, as is the fine feel of both cars' brakes. So at last we have some small Fiats – or Abarths, rather – that keen drivers will enjoy. The 500 isn't quite as deft or supple as a Mini Cooper, and the Fiesta ST shades it for control sensitivity, particularly its steering, but the differences aren't vast. Against the Ford, and every other hot hatch in this class apart from the Mini, the 500 has an interior of alluring appeal. The leather-trimmed wheel is stylish and pleasing to hold, you get aluminium-faced pedals and a matching clutch footrest, an additional dial to indicate the most economical gearshift points in normal mode, or maximum revs in the sport setting and, if you order your interior in red leather, the front chairs resemble bucket seats from the 1960s. The standard 500 has a pretty inviting interior, and these features only heighten the urge to get in and drive. It's an experience you're going to be pretty pleased with.
Mini Cooper 1.6: £13,325
Less powerful than the Fiat, and less dressy, but very well finished, has a superior ride and more space. Tempting options soon boost the price, including extra-cost air conditioning.
Toyota Yaris 1.8 VVT-i 3dr: £13,655
A big engine for a little car, geared for smooth cruising rather than sharp acceleration. Lots of equipment, including TomTom sat-nav. Civilised, but cheaply finished and less of an entertainer.
Vauxhall Corsa 1.6 Sri 3dr: £14,320
Stylish, fun-to-drive and well-appointed, if less characterful than the Abarth. The ride's firm, though for a sports model this matters less, but its relative thirst may be an issue.